Del Mar Preview

By Noel Michaels

It's summer in Southern California, and for horseplayers, that can only mean one thing: Del Mar. The annual Del Mar thoroughbred meet opens on Wednesday, August 21, and will usher in California's best and most looked-forward-to seven weeks of racing straight up through Sept. 8. For handicappers, Del Mar will be a welcome change from the small fields, limited race days, and sparse betting opportunities offered up the coast at the recently concluded Hollywood Park meet.

Del Mar unveiled its current Polytrack surface in 2007 and it has played to mixed reviews ever since. Despite the nay-sayers, however, many horsemen continue to vouch for the surface for its safety, while many handicappers like the big field sizes and high-priced mutuel payoffs that Polytrack has brought along with it to “Where the Turf Meets the Surf” at old Del Mar.

With three Polytrack meets in the books at Del Mar, the Polytrack seems to be playing the closest to Keeneland's surface on the list of other artificial surface venues across the country. Del Mar's surface can be as mercurially slow as Keeneland's, but the track has sped up each year since debuting in 2007 and the track is therefore more betable now than it was back in 2007 when the races were completely unpredictable and there was no database of statistics to go on.

Two trends seem to have been firmly established at Del Mar with three years of Polytrack racing in the books. 1) Outside running paths have been an advantaged at Del Mar, and 2) Early speed is of little advantage at Del Mar.

The effectiveness of front-runners has been dramatically reduced on Del Mar's Polytrack, particularly in route races. Horses with the wire-to-wire running style were never as effective at Del Mar in sprints as they were in routes, so naturally, route races have seen the biggest impact. In sprints, it is also worth noting, too, that the decrease in front-running winners was mainly made up by an increase in winning close-to-the-pace pressers and stalkers. In routes, the decline in winning front-runners is mainly due to a large increase in the number of winning closers.

And so, you can safely say that short sprint races up to 6 1/2 furlongs play fairly on Del Mar's main track, but it is difficult to win on the front-end in routes. Take note that in sprints, the farther you go the worse front-runners do. In 5 1/2-furlong races, speed tends to dominate. However, beware of Del Mar's quirk at 7 furlongs, where horses rarely go wire-to-wire. The overwhelming majority of all winners at that distance are mid-pack stalkers that were between 2 3/4 and 6 lengths off the lead at the second call. Rarely do horses win at 7 furlongs from more than 6 lengths back at the second call.

Just as important as running styles on Del Mar's Polytrack are running paths. This does not mean post positions, but rather, the number of paths out from the rail that a horse runs during the course of the race. Post positions are fair at Del Mar at all distances – including mile races where the inside posts see little to no advantage despite the short run to the first turn. However, it does make a difference in which path a horse runs, and that is a very difficult thing to handicap. This is probably the reason that Del Mar's mutuel payoffs can be so astronomically high, especially early in the meet when people are still figuring out Del Mar. Remember, the biggest bias at Del Mar, especially in sprints, has more to do with a horse's running path than it has to do with post position or running style.

The reality at Del Mar is that the 4-5 wide paths can often play like a conveyor belt to the winner's circle. Middle and outside running paths have an advantage at all distances (sprints and routes) on Del Mar's Polytrack.

Remember, the Cushion Track in place at Hollywood is far different than the Polytrack at Del Mar. Horses that did well at Hollywood probably won't be the same as the horses who do well at Del Mar. It's a different kind of surface with different kinds of running times and different kinds of track biases and different kinds of horses for the course. When handicapping at Del Mar, pay special attention to horses (including those dangerous out-of-town shippers) that have shown they can run well on Polytrack courses, and specifically at Del Mar, which has become one of those tracks where the term “horse for the course” has come to mean so much.

Meanwhile, some trainers, particularly Bruce Headley and the very vocal Bob Baffert, are far from impressed, and would much rather be racing their short sprinters and speedy 2-year-olds on surfaces other than Polytrack, which doesn't emphasize the brilliant speed that California racing has been known for decades in these kinds of races. That being said Baffert has made the necessary adjustments and is coming off of a 15-win meet at Del Mar in 2009 where he led all trainers in purse money won. Headley was far less productive, winning only 4 races for a 13% win percentage.

Based on the stats from the 2009 Del Mar meet, some of the trainers you'll want to focus on include 2009 leading trainer John Sadler (28 wins in 2009!), as well as the usual suspects such as Doug O'Neill (11 wins in 2009), Jeff Mullins (11 wins), Mike Mitchell (11 wins) and Jerry Hollendorfer (9 wins, 28% winners in 2009).

Trainers with sneaky good ROIs at Del Mar in 2009 included Peter Eurton ($2.97), Donald Warren ($6.16), Vladimir Cerin ($3.43), Eric Guillot ($3.98), Mike Harrington ($3.23), Adam Kitchingman ($3.14), A.C. Avila ($3.36), and Dan Hendricks ($4.41).

Trainers who are coming off of a bad Del Mar meet in 2009 include Jack Carava (5-for-42, 13% wins), Barry Abrams (5-for-46, 12%), Martin Jones (3-for-30, 10%) and guys like Rafael Becerra, Art Shurman, Ed Moger, Gary Sherlock, Bill Spawr, Caesar Dominguez, Patrick Gallagher, Mark Glatt, Mike Puype, Craig Lewis, Steve Knapp, Julio Canani, Walter Solis, David Hofmans, and Sal Gonzalez, who all had winning percentages less than 10%. Trainers who took the collar at Del Mar in 2009 with at least 10 starters included Beau Greely, Eoin Harty, Drew Fulmer, Jose Delima, Roger Stein, Henry Moreno, Cirilo Sierra, Howard Zucker, Jesus Mendosa, and Robert Troeger.

Del Mar Turf Racing
For bettors who can't stand betting Del Mar's Polytrack, the good news is that Del Mar still cards some of the country's best turf racing all summer long. Del Mar's turf racing is great, because among other things, there is little or no bias or favoritism for inside posts as opposed to outside posts. Del Mar turf races are carded for a maximum of 10 runners, and the limited field sizes seem to have the effect of lessening the troubles encountered by wider horses. One exception to this rule is in Del Mar's relatively small number of turf sprint races, where the inside four post positions are clearly the places to be. Outside posts 5-8 generally are bad news in turf sprints.

2009 Winning Post Positions – Del Mar Turf Routes (1 mile – 1 1/8 miles)

Post Starts Wins Win%
1 65 10 15
2 65 10 8
3 65 8 12
4 65 9 14
5 65 5 8
6 62 10 16
7 57 10 18
8 49 3 6
9 36 4 11
10 19 1 5

Del Mar's top turf trainers in 2009 included Julio Canani and Richard Mandella (5 wins each), and Mike Puype, Barry Abrams, James Cassidy, Patrick Gallagher, and Jerry Hollendorfer, who all had 4 wins apiece.

Trainers who performed poorly on the Del Mar lawn in 2009 include Steve Knapp (0-for-10), David Hofmans (1-for-12), Bob Baffert (1-for-13), and surprisingly Neil Drysdale (2-for-24, $0.66 ROI), and John Sadler (3-for-31, $0.59 ROI).

Turf Sprints
Turf sprints are nothing new at Del Mar, but they have become an increasingly big part of the Del Mar condition book over the last couple of years with even more turf sprints expected to be on the way for the 2010 meet. Turf sprints in general have become more popular across the country, and now that the division is represented by a Breeders' Cup race, the trend is likely to continue in the future at tracks like Del Mar, where turf sprints were once little more than a novelty.

When horseplayers think of Southern California turf sprints, we invariably think of Santa Anita with its extensive program of 6 1/2-furlong races run down-the-hill on its unique turf course. These days, however, the SoCal turf sprint season no longer begins and ends with the races run at Santa Anita. Hollywood is running its fair share turf sprints these days, and Del Mar, in turn, is following suit with its own expanding program of turf sprints.

Del Mar turf sprints are all run at 5 furlongs. Del Mar's short turf sprints featuring a relatively short run into a tight turn tend put an extreme emphasis on speed and athleticism much more than the turf sprints being run elsewhere on the circuit. Small, agile, quick horses do much better than their big bulky rivals.

Due to Del Mar's narrow turf course, a maximum of only eight starters are allowed in Del Mar's turf sprints. On the plus side, however, at least the races are usually filled with the field size in Del Mar's turf sprints averaging nearly 7 1/2 starters the last four years.

Del Mar's turf sprints are usually over in the blink of an eye, and that kind of race dynamic favors speedy running breaking from inside posts who can get out front, get to the rail, cut the corner, and hold on to the wire. Therefore, it is not surprising that the majority of Del Mar's turf sprints are won from the four inside posts. Posts 1-4 have accounted two-thirds of Del Mar's turf sprint wins with only about 55% of the starters, which amounts to a solid wagering advantage.

At Del Mar, two trainers have asserted their dominance in turf sprints above all others the last several years – Howard Zucker and Brian Koriner. Koriner in particular is one to watch, while Zucker much rebound from an off year in Del Mar turf sprints in 2009.

What trainers can you rely on if you are looking for better odds than you can get on the typical Zucker and Koriner turf sprinters? Well, the best alternatives, especially lately, have been Mike Mitchell and Peter Miller.

Trainers to avoid in these turf sprints, based on statistics from 2006-2009, include Doug O'Neill, Steve Knapp, Jack Carava, Robert Hess, Ron McAnally, and Richard Mandella.


Trainers to bet in Del Mar turf sprints
Bob Baffert
Brian Koriner
Peter Miller
Mike Mitchell
Jeff Mullins
Howard Zucker

Trianers to bet against in Del Mar turf sprints
Jack Carava
Robert Hess Jr.
Steve Knapp
Ron McAnally
Richard Mandella
Doug O'Neill

By using these simple as a rough guideline, you will have a foundation in what it takes to win at the Del Mar meet. Enjoy the next seven weeks in SoCal, where the surf meets the turf at sunny Del Mar. Good luck!


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